Monday, 4 September 2017

An evening of theatrical magic: Judith Weir's The Vanishing Bridegroom

British Youth Opera - David Horton (The Friend), Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, Harriet Birchall, Siân Griffiths (Three Women), Ida Ränzlöv (The Daughter puppeteer), Ian Beadle (The Husband) and Alexandra Lowe (The Wife) in The Vanishing Bridegroom (Photo Robert Workman)
British Youth Opera - David Horton (The Friend), Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, Harriet Birchall, Siân Griffiths (Three Women),
Ida Ränzlöv (The Daughter puppeteer), Ian Beadle (The Husband) and Alexandra Lowe (The Wife) - Judith Weir: The Vanishing Bridegroom
(Photo Robert Workman)
British Youth Opera - Timothy Edlin (The Stranger) - Judith Weir: The Vanishing Bridegroom (Photo Robert Workman)
British Youth Opera - Timothy Edlin (The Stranger)
Judith Weir: The Vanishing Bridegroom (Photo Robert Workman)
Judith Weir The Vanishing Bridegroom; Alexandra Lowe, David Horton, Ian Beadle, Timothy Edlin, Ida Ränzlöv, dir: Stuart Barker, Southbank Sinfonia, cond: James Holmes; British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 2 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Judith Weir's entrancing opera in a performance which brought out the sense of magical story-telling

Having performed Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera in 2012, British Youth Opera returned to Weir's operas and gave us the valuable opportunity to see The Vanishing Bridegroom in a new production at the Peacock Theatre on 2 September 2017, directed by Stuart Barker, designed by Andrew Riley, movement by Mandy Demetriou, lighting by David Howe and Darren East as puppetry consultant. James Holmes conducted the Southbank Sinfonia, and the cast included Alexandra Lowe, David Horton, Ian Beadle, Timothy Edlin and Ida Ränzlöv.

Weir's opera was commissioned for Glasgow European City of Culture in 1990 and premiered by Scottish Opera. The music and subject matter both have a distinctly Scottish tint; Weir's own libretto imaginatively weaves together three Scots Gaelic folk-tales, and includes poetry from Carmina Gadelica and other sources, whilst the music references a number of styles of performance from the West Highlands whilst always remaining true to Weir's own voice.


British Youth Opera - Alexandra Lowe (The Bride) - Judith Weir: The Vanishing Bridegroom (Photo Robert Workman)
Alexandra Lowe (The Bride) - (Photo Robert Workman)
Weir links the tales by having the same characters re-appearing. For 'The Inheritance' a dying man's legacy is missing, his three sons dispute and the doctor tells them a fable - a young woman has a lover whom her father forbids her to marry, she marries a richer man but flees to the lover on her wedding night, the lover sends her back to her husband but she is set upon by robbers, one of whom takes pity on her and returns her to her husband. Who is the most admirable in the story? One brother says the robbers, he is the one who takes the inheritance. In 'The Disappearance', the bride and bridegroom are now husband and wife and have a daughter and the husband goes with his friend to fetch a priest to christen her. The husband is lured away by fairies, the friend is accused of murder and stands watch by the hillside. When the husband re-appears, he thinks he has been gone a moment but years have passed. In 'The Stranger' the daughter, now grown up, is wooed by a handsome stranger, but a preacher warns her that he is the devil and when the stranger returns she stands on a sanctified spot of ground and the devil cannot reach her.

The production set everything in the context of communal tale-telling with the characters coming out of the ensemble and then retreating into it. In Act One, as the doctor (Timothy Edlin) tells the tale the three brothers (Glen Cunningham, Steve Swindells, Stuart Orme) are present and watch, fascinated as the bride (Alexandra Lowe), the lover (David Horton) and the bridegroom (Ian Beadle) act out the tale. There is much magic in the opera, and Stuart Barker wove this into the narrative not with trickery but by having the ensemble make things appear and disappear.

British Youth Opera - Ida Ranzlov (The Daughter) - Judith Weir: The Vanishing Bridegroom (Photo Robert Workman)
Ida Ränzlöv (The Daughter) - (Photo Robert Workman)
Another level of theatrical magic was the puppetry, during the wedding celebration we had magic instruments with disembodied arms, whilst the daughter in the Act Two was played by a pair of puppets manipulated by Ida Ränzlöv who played the adult girl in Act Three.

You were very much aware of the sense of community, with people reacting and commenting and this was woven into the music as in Act Two there are three women (Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, Harriet Birchall and Sian Griffiths) who at first support the wife (Alexandra Lowe) but when the husband (Ian Beadle) disappears they start making pointed comments, clearly relishing the situation.

The piece was strongly cast, with Alexandra Lowe making a sympathetic heroine moving from troubled bride to abandoned wife, with Ian Beadle as her resolute spouse, completely unaware of the length of time he has been away. Having the same man (David Horton) playing the lover in Act One and the husband's friend in Act Two created intriguing linkages, both characters imbued by Horton with strength of character. Whilst Timothy Edlin moved from older narrative characters (the Doctor in Act One and the Policeman in Act Two) to turn into the dashing stranger in Act Three. Ida Ränzlöv impressed with her strength of personality in Act Three, when she opens the piece with a powerful ballad.  All the other smaller roles were equally strongly performed, each singer giving us a strong sense of character.

The piece was very much about telling stories, and the ensemble's sense of narrative was very powerful and involving. The only thing which let them down was that the diction was not always very clear, this seems to be a general problem with the Peacock Theatre, and though the cast were clearly working hard it seemed that important words were not getting across.

British Youth Opera - David Horton (The Friend) - Judith Weir: The Vanishing Bridegroom (Photo Robert Workman)
British Youth Opera - David Horton (The Friend) - Judith Weir: The Vanishing Bridegroom (Photo Robert Workman)
James Holmes and the Southbank Sinfonia gave us a fine account of Weir's score, allowing the instrumental lines to weave in and out of the sung ones, to create a magical whole.

Weir's opera is an entrancing piece, and this performance really brought out the magic.

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